What danger? Australians love their sharks, but not the jellyfish
News of shark attacks off Australian beaches reverberate through newspapers around the world, and stick fast in our collective memory. Yet how many remember deaths by lightning strike – despite that more than five times as many Australians are killed by electrical bolts from the skies than by sharks?
However, something strange, and distinctly Australian, has happened over the past generation – Australians have come to love their sharks, with the majority apparently supporting their protection. This comes in spite of a surge in shark attacks in recent years from an historical average of just one death per year, to four in 2011 and five in 2014.
In August 2015 the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper posted a poll on its website asking its readers ‘Should sharks be culled on the NSW North Coast?’ This came shortly after a surfer was attacked and killed in northern New South Wales, when shark attacks were high in the national discourse. Interestingly, 46% voted ‘No, the ocean is their domain, not ours; we are the intruders’ while another 26% voted ‘No, it’s important to protect them’. The total of ‘Yes, cull them’ votes added up to a mere 23% compared to that huge 72% who did not want to see sharks killed. While a newspaper poll is not science, and might spur more passionate ‘greenies’ to vote, it is one more indication of the clear direction of Australian public opinion.
Public support for the protection of sharks even bubbled up into a mass protest in February 2014 when 6,000 people gathered on Cottesloe Beach in Western Australia waving banners against the government’s culling of sharks, instigated by a spate of fatal shark attacks in the area. Most attacks were attributed to great white sharks, making them the obvious target of culling efforts. However, of the first 170 sharks caught (68 large ones were killed, the smaller ones released) none was a great white.
The pro-shark protesters’ placards got their message across graphically. SOS – Save Our Sharks read one. Others carried messages both fun and serious: Cull pollies (politicians) not sharks; Great whites have rights; Culling is not a solution – It is murder; It’s their ocean, not ours.
At the same time another 2,000 pro-shark protesters gathered on Manly Beach, Sydney, while smaller protests against the killing of sharks in Western Australia erupted elsewhere around the country. The Australian Director of Sea Shepherd, Jeff Hansen, was quoted as saying 80 - 90% of Australians now oppose the killing of sharks.
Australia has something of a tradition of protecting its most deadly inhabitants. All of Australia’s many deadly snakes are protected under law. The fearsome saltwater crocodile that grows to seven metres and loves to make a snack of a human when the opportunity arises, has been protected since the 1970s. Following years of hunting that came close to wiping them out, crocodile numbers have rebounded to such levels that swimming in a river in Australia’s north today is akin to throwing oneself onto the BBQ plate.
Australia’s most deadly killer of all, however, enjoys no such protection. That’s the innocuous-looking, but barely visible, box jellyfish (chironex fleckeri) famed for being able to stop a human heart in just three minutes. While the box jellyfish had long been thought to be an exclusively Australian problem, a new awareness has shown that box jellyfish have also been killing people in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries like The Philippines for years with little brouhaha.
In 2015 sharks had killed two people in Australia by September 2015, the time of writing, with one of those a Japanese surfing the waves in northern New South Wales, south of the Gold Coast. Here on the Gold Coast the last two fatalities were in 2002 and 2003, with both occurring not in the open ocean where they might be expected, but in the brackish lakes behind the coast where people build their million dollar homes. Both attacks have been attributed to the aggressive bull sharks that inhabit the murky waters of rivers and estuaries worldwide. Jumping into the surf along the Gold Coast is statistically very, very safe.
The only sharks the average visitor to The Coast is likely to see are those in Sea World’s huge aquarium. There’s a better chance of seeing migrating whales – which are often seen from true beachfront apartments – than marauding sharks.